Tag Archives: My Thoughts Exactly

Mr. Lecturer, Snoop Dogg, and Dbanj’s “Mr. Endowed”

I think I’ve set a new record for neglecting this blog. I have had a series of deadlines on various writing projects, and I didn’t want to allow myself to blog until I met at least one of the deadlines. Now, I have a lot to catch up on.  Since it is impossible to go back and reproduce all the posts I should have posted, I will just start with the most recent–this week’s column in Weekly Trust. This is not my best or favourite column, but it is one particularly well suited for a blog, because I can bling it up with all kinds of videos to make the reading experience more stimulating.  (Forgive me if some of the videos here are a little less than great quality. I was trying to put up this blog post on an internet connection that would usually only let me load about 10 seconds of the video before timing out, so I was posting videos from memory rather than verifying the youtube uploads that were the best quality. Please NOTE that the videos embedded here are being used in this blog post under Fair Use laws for review purposes.)

Mr. Lecturer, Snoop Dogg, and D’banj’s “Mr. Endowed”

 Written by carmen mccain Saturday, 22 October 2011 05:00

 Let’s call him “Mr. Lecturer.” A few years ago, on the last day of an academic conference after the few other women at the conference had left, I went back to my hotel room to relax.

I heard a knock at my door. It was “Mr. Lecturer,” a colleague attending the conference, a big, tall man of probably around fifty. When I opened the door, he pressed himself so close to me that I took an instinctive step backwards and he wriggled into my room. He said that he needed a quiet place to work and he wanted to write in my room. “Do you not have a room in this hotel?” I asked. He replied he did but he wanted to use my laptop because his battery was low. I edged closer to the door and told him that my battery was also low and that I was just going out to eat. I grabbed my bag, ushered him out of the room and wandered in self exile around the streets of the unfamiliar city for a while. Before it got dark, I bought a compilation vcd of Naija music videos from a street vender, then went back to my room and locked myself in.  Around 8pm, there were several knocks at my door. I turned off my lights and refused to answer. I sat in the dark fuming, until I remembered the compilation of music videos I had bought earlier.  With nothing else to do, I slotted the vcd into my laptop. This was the first time I had seen the video for P-Square’s “Do Me,” or D’banj’s “Booty Call.” I knew the songs and frequently sang along to the catchy choruses. But in watching the compilation, which also included music videos from American artists like Snoop Dogg, I grew angrier and angrier. The music videos were full of women in buttock-revealing miniskirts, brassieres, and fish-net stockings. The camera zoomed in on close-ups of their gyrating backsides and heaving breasts. It was like the representation of ‘natives’ by various parts of their bodies that Chinua Achebe noted in Joseph Conrad’s racist novel Heart of Darkness. This time it was women being cut up into body parts. Rarely would the camera focus on a woman’s face.  In D’banj’s “Booty Call,” fully-dressed men sat back and leered, as barely-dressed women pranced and paraded before them.

P-Squares “Do Me”

Dbanj’s “Booty Call” 

As I watched, I grew so angry that I was unable to sleep all night. I was angry at the musicians for objectifying women. I was angry with the women for allowing themselves to be objectified. And most of all, I was furious with Mr. Lecturer for thinking I, the only woman left at the conference and his colleague, albeit a junior one, was “fair game.” (Lord have mercy on his poor students!) The music videos did not make Mr. Lecturer harass me, but both are symptomatic of the same underlying  disrespect for women—a condition captured brilliantly in Eedris Abdulkareem’s music video “Mr. Lecturer.”

Eedris Abdulkareem’s “Mr. Lecturer

I remembered that sleepless night recently when I finally had the bandwidth to download Dbanj’s music video “Mr. Endowed” directed by Sesan and featuring the American hip hop artist Snoop Dogg. It is one of the worst videos, Nigerian or American, I’ve seen.

Dbanj’s “Mr. Endowed, feat. Snoop Dogg”

Don’t get me wrong, I love hip hop and dancehall. Even though I hate D’banj’s and P-Square’s music videos with big cars and scantily dressed women, I admit to the contradiction of still singing along to the lyrics when they come on the radio.  Although I think Snoop is a maddening sexist, I occasionally enjoy his deadpan voice and irreverent raps, which are so outrageous that sometimes all you can do is laugh.  The Bollywood music video “Singh is King” featuring Snoop, for example, plays ironically with Orientalist stereotypes.  There are dancing girls but they are included with a self-mocking wink.

Akshay Kumar and Snoop Dogg in “Singh is King”

Nigeria’s icon Fela Anikulapo-Kuti similarly thrived on the notoriety of extravagant sexuality, featuring topless women on his record albums, mostly naked dancers at his performances, and marrying 27 women in one swoop. Yet, as outrageous as his sexual excesses were, he was committed to the Nigerian masses, fearlessly speaking out against injustice.

Album cover of Fela’s album “Expensive Shit” responding to his imprisonment. (Courtesy of EgoTrip)

Fela and Afrika 70 in performance in Calabar, 1970 (shot by Ginger Baker)

photo credit: Nigerian Curiosity

Dbanj, on the other hand, as “Kokomaster” with his “Koko Mansion” and “Kokolettes” groomed to please him, courts the notoriety without any of the social responsibility. He seems to style himself the Hugh Hefner of Nigeria, surrounded by women who are not “queens” (and eventually wives) as Fela called them but mere sexual playtoys. In “Mr. Endowed,” D’banj takes a song with narcissistic lyrics and a mediocre dance track and blings it up with exotic locations and decent cinematography.  The conceit of Snoop being D’banj’s American uncle is clever, and my favourite part of the video is when D’banj presents the American artist with a Nigerian passport, giving him the name Baba Aja Oluwasnoop.  There is also a certain nationalistic pleasure in seeing D’banj cruise the streets of Los Angeles in a green and white Rolls Royce, bursting into Yoruba while dancing around the mansion under a Nigerian and American flag. D’banj implies that he has done all this for Naija, singing, “At the end of the day when my people see me, I bring them joy, they give me a round of applause.” But the rest of the video takes the clichés of wine, women, and song typical of both Snoop’s and D’banj’s videos to new levels of vulgarity. “Uncle Snoop’s” house has an elaborate marble and gold staircase that is decorated by two “vixens” in bustiers and bikini bottoms who writhe around licking their lips and stroking themselves. Musicians wander about flashing fistfuls of dollars, opening suitcases full of blingy time pieces. Snoop is not at his best. His rap is not mixed well, so that his voice is low and you can’t hear what he is saying. He seems a bit lost behind the enthusiasm of his Nigerian “nephews.” I see no redeeming irony here. Perhaps, the repeated instances of one of the musicians walking in on women in the bathroom, one in a bathtub covered with $100 dollar bills and one seated on the toilet using $100 bills as toilet paper is supposed to be funny. To me, it is just embarrassing—a joke with a punchline gone flat. D’banj usually has good beats, and sometimes clever lyrics, sung in a skillful mix of Yoruba and pidgin.  But this “copy-copy” is not interesting or fresh. The music videos I enjoy the most are those that situate themselves in a recognizable Naija. The pitfalls of musicians like D’banj or P-Square and Darey, who make most of their videos in South Africa, or musicians who shoot endless “girls-in-the-club” videos is that no matter the “quality” of the video, they are not being innovative. The videos I most love are those like Eedris Abdulkareem’s old but powerful “Nigeria Jaga Jaga” which uses actual footage of Nigeria or his satirical “Mr. Lecturer.”   TY Bello’s simple but gorgeous “Greenland” focuses on portraits of Nigerians of all ages; elDee’s “Light Up Naija” uses similar simple portraits to highlight his call to unity. TuFace, DJ Jimmy Jatte, and Mode 9 in “Stylee” set addictive rhymes against a backdrop of Lagos traffic and danfos, a Lagos which Nneka also uses cinema-verite style in her video “Heartbeat.” The video for the late Sazzy’s “Mr. Chairman,” is nothing fancy but captures the fierce passion of the Abuja-based musician so well that it takes my breath away.  Recently I came across a beautifully shot music video “Soyeyya” by a hip hop artist XDOGGinit, who raps in Hausa and features humorous acting by Kannywood stars. What makes a video good is not how much money is spent on it but how creative and “true” it is.  I hope to highlight more of the ones I like this year. [Note: These videos may not be as sophisticated or polished as the “club” videos shot in South Africa etc, but they seem to me to have more SOUL.]  And to those musicians who specialize in getting women to remove their clothes for your videos. You may be young and “endowed” now, and there may be plenty of silly girls eager for the fame. But in a few more years, try that and you’ll get called “Mr. Lecturer.” A word to the wise. Eedris Abdulkareem’s Nigeria Jaga Jaga (not the best quality upload but you can see what I mean) TY Bello’s “Greenland” DJ Jimmy Jatt, feat. Mode 9, 2Face, and Elajoe in “Stylee” Nneka “Heartbeat” Sazzy “Mr. Chairman” XDOGGinit “Soyayya”

Threat of hate, hope of Love: Thoughts on the post-election crisis April 2011 (Also looking for stories of Christians and Muslims protecting each other)

Broken glass along Zoo Road on 19 April 2011 following the post-election violence in Kano, 18 April 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

I had a really hard time writing my column last week. I felt mute. The post-election crisis was something I felt that poetry could address better than any sort of attempt to make sense of it in prose, which is why I have gone a week on this blog without posting anything about the violence that followed the presidential elections, other than Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” which expresses about how I felt last week, and a quickly composed poem that I wrote to go along with the painting. But because I have a weekly column to write, I pushed this out, with many misgivings, to my editor later than I’ve ever turned anything in. Bless his good heart, he did a great job of editing what I sent him. I’ve made 2 small last minute changes in the text I copy below.

In the column I mentioned one story of a pastor who was protected by a Muslim brother at a car park here in Kano. This morning, I read this very touching article in NEXT, about a Muslim man in Minna who risked his life to save several Christian families. He told Next reporters that he took inspiration from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (who had also in a charter of privileges given to St. Catherine’s monestary in Egypt said: “Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.”):

“I kept thinking of the prophet,” he said. “One day some men came to kill him and failed. As they fled, the prophet noticed that they were going in the direction of his more militant supporters, Saidi na Ali and such. So, he told them not to go that way, to avoid the route because they might get themselves killed. He helped them make good their escape. That is my example. That should be our example as Muslims.”

I would like to focus on these stories (less heard but very common) of Muslims protecting Christians and Christians protecting Muslims in time of crisis (especially the most recent crisis) in my column for this week. If anyone has such a personal story or knows someone who does, could you please email me by Tuesday night at carmenmccain @ yahoo.com with the story and phone numbers for verification purposes.

Here is this week’s column. To read the original as published, click on the link here to read it on the Weekly Trust website or on the photo below to read a hard copy. Otherwise, read on below the photo.

Threat of hate, hope of love

Saturday, 23 April 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

Monday morning, 18 April, I heard the roar of a mob and gunshots on the street outside of the compound where I stay in Kano. I stayed at home, checking Facebook and Google news, making calls to friends to make sure they were OK.

As the rioting on the streets quieted to an uneasy calm, the fighting continued in Kaduna and elsewhere. Violence in the streets unleashed violent words on social networks in cyber space. Regional, political, and religious biases began to crack through the net, with friends and strangers calling each other barbarians and beasts, fools and hypocrites, questioning the commitment of the other to live in the state of Nigeria.

Burnt house of a leader in Kano, taken 19 April 2011 (c) Carmen McCain

Although I’ve lived through crises in Jos and I’ve read of previous crises in Kano, this was the first time I’ve experienced serious rioting in the North’s largest city. The current violence seems to have started out as political outrage against Northern leadership seen as betraying the interests of the people. Whether or not they had anything to do with the current elections, current and former leaders were targeted.  In Kano alone, the house of former speaker Ghali Umar Na’abba; the house of former ANPP presidential candidate Alhaji Bashir Tofa; the residence of the Galadima of Kano, and others were set afire. Even the emir of Kano was not exempt from the rage, as his Dorayi palace was attacked and burnt. Government offices were also burned, including, ironically, the Kano Pension Board office where records are kept. If it had remained at that, we could perhaps describe it, somewhat simplistically, as a revolution of the northern proletariat against a resented elite, but there was something uglier here than class rage. As sympathetic as I am for the leaders who lost property to the mobs, what I find the most alarming is how politically-motivated mayhem spilled over into violence against non-elite communities stereotyped as the “other” and assumed to be “at blame” for this disenfranchisement.

Broken glass in the window above Karami CD Palace, photo taken 18 April 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

On Tuesday, I stopped by Gidan Dan Asabe on Zoo Road, which hosts a complex of studios, to check on friends. Kannywood actor Mustapha Musty and musician DJ Yaks described how a mob of young men had come searching for a well-known actor who had campaigned for PDP. Although he was not there, the mob threw stones at glass and ripped down signboards. This ‘scape-goating’, as Hausa filmmaker and Kannywood elder Aliyu Shehu Yakasai, explained to me is often less a question of ideology among the unemployed youth in the streets as an excuse to loot and steal. Political fervor was mixed with opportunism. The glass front of Karami CD Palace was knocked out and hundreds of thousands of naira worth of property looted, from VCDs to the ceiling fan to money stored in a cabinet. The internet café next door was not spared, as its glass was also smashed and some printers and computer accessories looted.

Baba Karami standing in front of Karami CD Palace with all the glass broken out of the shop front following the post-election violence in Kano 2011, photo taken 19 April 2011. Compare to photos taken in 2009, and note how all the goods have been stripped from front of shop, but business continues on. (c)Carmen McCain

Karami CD Palace 2009. (c) Carmen McCain

“Everybody has a right to vote for

Baba Karami in Karami CD Palace, 2009. (c) Carmen McCain

anyone they want,” Mustapha Musty told me. Although he thought it was best for actors not to campaign for politicians so as not to alienate fans, he told me his brother had recently been voted into the House of Assembly under the CPC. “But they didn’t care, yesterday, whether you were actually CPC or PDP,” he said. They just destroyed everything. Musician DJ Yaks described reasoning with one mob and hiding from another in a small generator room while trying to lock up an office. He told me that actors and musicians were easy targets because “people know our faces,” and that they were all assumed to behave and think the same way, when in fact many of them had the same political loyalties as their attackers.

ECWA Church Badawa burnt during the 2011 post-election crisis, Kano. Sent to me by Rev. Murtala Mati. Please do not repost without permission.

The CPC presidential candidate, Mummadu Buhari has recently pointed out a far more serious issue, “it is wrong for you to allow miscreants to infiltrate your ranks[….] the mindless destruction of worship places […] is worse than rigging elections.” On 21 April, I spoke with Reverend Murtala Mati, a Kano indigene who has a weekly radio program “Ban Gaskiya Kirista” on Pyramid Radio. He had researched and put together a list of twenty-two churches burned in Kano during the rioting, seventeen in Nassarawa Local Government and six in Kumbotso Local Government. There were seventeen confirmed deaths of Christians, and fifty bodies yet to be identified. “What does this political problem have to do with Christians?” Reverend Mati asked me in an earlier meeting on 19 April. He speculated that Christians were scapegoated because of an assumption that “those who do not vote for CPC are Christians. They think PDP is a Christian party because the presidential aspirant was a Christian.”  Yet the assumption that Christians are a monolithic group voting along religious lines is not correct, he argued. “Many of our members voted CPC,” he told me, saying that Christians had the same concerns about living conditions and corruption as their Muslim neighbors. The spilling over of politics into religious identity has meant even more severe consequences for Kaduna, where Civil Rights Congress reports over two hundred from both faiths’ communities dead, and churches and mosques alike left smouldering.

As the news of violence in the North spread across the country, I saw the similar assumptions of monolithic identity applied to the entire north or to all Muslims by those who posted virulent, hate-filled rants on the internet. And while words do not literally kill, burn, or break, they fan a flame of hatred and misunderstanding that threatens to engulf Nigeria. The problem with the assumptions made by both the irrational mobs that destroy in the north and in rants of those who stereotype the entire north in conversation and media, is they make assumptions about entire communities, they group “those to blame” for their struggles as members of one whole career, one whole religion, one whole class, or one whole ethnicity, overlooking the complexity that lies within.

Hope lies in fragments, in the stories of human love and goodness that emerge out of ruins. Pastor Habila Sunday, who pastors a church in Kwanan Dangora village, Kano State, and had worn a church T-shirt to travel in on Monday, told me how at Unguwa Uku Motor Park he was threatened by a man with a knife. A Muslim man held back the man wielding the weapon, and told him “This man is one of us. He has nothing to do with politics. Before you kill him, you’ll have to kill me.” He then hid the pastor in a nearby shop and sat outside for four hours guarding the door. When a policeman they had called refused to enter the neighborhood, the man escorted the pastor on a winding path to the main road. The actions of this Good Samaritan, who risked his own life to protect a fellow Nigerian, are representative of many Muslims and Christians who protected both neighbors and strangers. These stories are less heard, but they provide hope that Nigerians are knit together more closely than the rhetoric and the terror committed by the most extreme of the society admit.

As I left DJ Yaks’ studio on Tuesday, he turned on a yet-to-be released song by Ibrahim Danko that floated out into the blackened streets and expresses wistfully what I think most of us long for at this time :

“I say, why, why, why, we dey hate each other? /I say, why, why, why, we dey fight each other? / I say, why, why, why, we dey kill each other […] One love, people together/ Nigeria…”

(c) Carmen McCain

Allah ya jikan Hausa film actress Maryam Umar Aliyu

FIM Magazine Cover featuring Maryam Umar Aliyu

Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihirraji’un.

I’m always reluctant to post news like this. It’s bad news, and I don’t like to bear it. The Hausa film star, Maryam Umar Aliyu, who retired from acting  after she married actor and musician Misbahu M. Ahmed in December 2009, died yesterday in Kano. This is one in a long string of Kannywood deaths in the last few years, including actress Hauwa Ali Dodo (Biba Problem) in January 2010,  Safiya Ahmed and director/actor Zilkiflu Mohammed in February 2010, actress Amina Garba (Mama Dumba) in November 2010, and just last month Baballe Costume, a film costumier.

I did not know Maryam well, but I had met her on enough occasions to be completely shocked when I first found out on facebook yesterday of her death. I first met her in 2006, and the film I first remember her in is Dan Zaki. The most recent film of hers that sticks out in my mind is Sai Na Dawo. The image of her that stays with me was sometime in 2008, she came into Golden Goose Studio studio wearing long dangly earrings and a beautiful outfit–a mixture of glamour and good natured sweetness. She sat on the floor with the rest of us, laughing and talking.

According to the Leadership article I will post below, she died yesterday from lingering complications of childbirth three months ago. She was still very young. Allah ya jikanta, ya rahama mata kuma allah ya sa Aljanna makoma ita. Allah ya ba mu hakuri.

If any readers would like to leave comments about memories they have of her or of their favourite films that Maryam featured in, I will consider including comments left by tonight (my deadline) in my column published on Saturday in the Weekly Trust.I will update this post as other news comes along, but to begin with I’ll post the short Leadership article by Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz that came out today. To read on the Leadership website, click here:

Ex-Hausa Film Star, Maryam ‘Kumurci’, Dies

WEDNESDAY, 13 APRIL 2011 11:14 ABDULAZIZ ABDULAZIZ, KANO

A prominent ex-Hausa film actress, Maryam Umar Aliyu (aka Maryam Kumurci), has died. The actress died yesterday afternoon in Kano after a protected illness.Until her death, She was the wife of renown playback singer, Musbahu M Ahmed.

LEADERSHIP also gathered that she died at a private hospital in Kano where she had been battling with complications arising from childbirth. She was said to have delivered of a stillborn baby three months ago.

Burial rites for the deceased was conducted at her family’s residence located at Gwammaja quarters. Just as she was later  buried according to Islamic rites at Kofar Mazugal cemetery.

The late Maryam began her filmmaking career in early 2000s and rose to stardom by 2005. She featured in several Hausa home videos including Khudsiyya and Jani.

She later got married to an actor, Sha’aibu Lawal (alias Kumurci), following the death of his bride, Balaraba Mohammed. Maryam’s relationship with the actor earned her the same sobriquet  as him; kumurci.

UPDATE 16 April 2011

Here is my column for the week, in tribute to Maryam Umar Aliyu. It can be read on the Weekly Trust site, here or in its original format as published in the Weekly Trust by clicking on the photo below:

Honouring Kannywood: In Memory of Maryam Umar Aliyu

Saturday, 16 April 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain.

Kannywood received yet another blow this week when former actress Maryam Umar Aliyu died, Tuesday, April 12, after a lingering illness following a still-birth. The stylish, light-skinned actress, who was of Nigerien origin but grew up in Katsina, began acting in the early 2000s, appearing in dozens of films including Labarin ZuciyaGiwar Mata, Dan Zaki, Makauniyar Yarinya, Khudsiyya, Jani, and Sai na Dawo, among many others. She also produced one film Majiya. When a brief marriage to actor Shu’aibu Kumurci ended, she returned to acting, but retired again in December 2009 to marry actor and singer Misbahu M. Ahmad. Maryam’s death comes after a long string of losses to the Hausa film industry over the past year and a half: actresses Hauwa Ali Dodo, Safiya Ahmed, and Amina Garba, Director and actor Zilkiflu Mohammad, and producer Hamza Muhammad Danzaki all died in 2010. Last month, a costumier called Baballe Costume also died.

A fan, Khadijah Sulaiman, wrote on Facebook, that she “had never seen a film” of Maryam’s that “wasn’t good.” She most remembered her for the 2006 film Dan Zaki. Likewise, my first memory of seeing Maryam Umar Aliyu was in the Sani Danja film, Dan Zaki, with its echoes of oral literature, where she plays the role of a woman so jealous that she has a sorcerer transform the man she loves into a bird and make his wife go mad. The film had just come out when I arrived in Kano to begin my research. Maryam came to the house where I was staying to visit my hostess, and I remember thinking her quite the opposite of the character she had played in the film. She was sweet and kind and laughed a lot. I remember how, later, after my return to Kano in 2008, she came into Golden Goose Studio one day, a mixture of glamour and cheerfulness, with her dangly earrings, fashionable dress and unforgettable smile. She sat on the floor of the studio, ate kosai and fried potatoes, and chatted with everyone there.

Her laughter, patience, and kindness are what other people in the industry I spoke to remember of her as well. Aminu Sheriff (Momoh) wrote on my blog that “She was very kind and jovial person[…] May her soul rest in peace, amin.” Over the phone (any mistakes in translation from Hausa to English are mine) actress Fati Bararoji told me that Maryam was a very patient and kind person, who loved the people around her. She didn’t fight with anyone, Fati said. She’d put up with a lot. When she accepted a role in a film, she wouldn’t haggle over money but would just take what she was given. Fati remembered, in particular, Maryam’s patience and cheerfulness over a seven-day shoot in Abuja which she had been on with her, shortly before Maryam’s marriage in 2009.

Sakna Gadaz Abdullahi repeated much of what Fati had told me. “Her death is a big loss to the industry and to her family.  The day I heard of her death, I couldn’t do anything else. I was so shocked. Maryam had become like my sister. Everyone who knew her in the industry knew that she was a good and loyal friend. She wasn’t materialistic.”

Sadiyya Mohammad (Gyale) wrote me that Maryam was very nice, patient and quiet. “I really loved Maryam.” Zainab Idris simply said that she had always gotten along well with Maryam. “Her death has really affected us. But we know that God loves her even more than us, and we too are on the road to the Hereafter whether today or any other time.”

Maryam’s death comes at a time when I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between the Hausa film industry, the wider Nollywood industry, and the role of film in Africa as a whole. In 1998, the Malian filmmaker Abdurrahmane Sissako made a film, La Vie Sur Terre/Life on Earth, which portrays a village where the news of the world comes in through international radio broadcasts, but where no information can escape. The villagers know about the world, yet the world does not know about them. The village post office can receive telephone calls but cannot call out.

Although the Hausa-speaking world is certainly no village and has access to phones, internet, radio, and other media (including a gigantic film industry which could be its gateway to the world), there is a metaphoric parallel here. Kannywood knows about Hollywood, Bollywood, and the larger Nigerian film industry of Nollywood, but they know very little about Kannywood.  Despite Maryam Umar Aliyu’s prolific acting career, when I went online to try to find photos of her to put on my blog, I didn’t find more than three or four. It always surprises me how little you find online about Kannywood stars, whose faces, blazoned on stickers, are plastered on thousands of buses, motorcycles, and taxis all over Northern Nigeria, Niger, and surrounding countries.

Hausa is spoken by over fifty million people in Africa. The Hausa film industry is, according to the most recent National Film and Video Censor’s Board statistics, creeping to nearly thirty percent of the Nigerian film industry. Beyond death, the figures and faces of these actors and actresses will keep running and clapping, speaking and laughing, singing and dancing through our lives for as long as the plastic of the VCDs last and the television channels continue to broadcast them into our homes. They are known by millions yet strangely unknown beyond a barrier of language and class, loved by those who buy stickers and films and yet often disrespected by those with the power to write about them on an international stage.

The imbalances in what the world knows about Hausa film and society have their roots in colonialism, yes, but also tend to be continued by the attitudes of an elite who keep their television stations tuned to CNN and BBC. Despite the hundreds of singing and dancing sequences uploaded to YouTube (rarely labeled with names of composer or performer), the occasional Facebook fan page, the old FIM Magazine pages or the commendable Kannywood online fan community, the lack of information about the Hausa film industry online is a sign that it is not yet appreciated by a northern elite who have the most access to the internet. And a lack of financial and moral support from an elite means it is much more difficult for the industry to break into the international film arena, as Yoruba films are beginning to do. I often hear educated members of a Northern Nigerian elite talking about how embarrassed they are by Hausa films, and yet it was these very Hausa films (and also the novels) that attracted me to learn Hausa. I am an American here in Kano because of film. I am here because I saw Ahmed S. Nuhu and Hauwa Ali Dodo and Zilkiflu Mohammed and Maryam Umar Aliyu in stories that captivated me and made me want to let the world know about them.

I am sad that I wrote of Maryam only after she died. I should have written about her while she was alive. Every time I write a tribute to an entertainer or artist gone before their time, I feel this way. Why didn’t I write more? Why don’t we all write more, in Hausa first and then English, about the young talents who surround us, filling our radios with songs, our television screens with dramas, and our bookshelves with novels, not imported but homegrown? Let’s honour Maryam by honouring, respecting and supporting her colleagues, those hard working, cheerful, and kind members of the Hausa film industry who, insha Allah, will live and work and grow as artists for years to come. Only when we respect our entertainers, will they be able to build an industry that will make us proud.

UPDATE 25 April 2011:

Other memories of Maryam Umar Aliyu sent to me:

From Auwal Danlarabawa

ina mai mika ta’aziyya ta ga rasuwar maryam umar Allah ya gafarta mata ameen, akwai wani jarumta da tayi a lokacin da muke aikin film din kanfani a lokacin da doki ya gudu da ita amma bata ji tsoro ba ta zauna daram har diokin ya kare gudunsa ya tsaya wanda ba kowacce jaruma ce zatayi hakan ba, shine babban abinda na ke tunawa a mu’amalarmu da maryam Allah ya gafarta mata mu kuma in tamau tazo Allah yasa mu cika da imani

To read other tributes I’ve written for Hausa actors and filmmakers gone before their time, see my posts on

Actress Hauwa Ali Dodo, who died 1 January 2010,

Director Zilkiflu Muhammed (Zik), who died 18 February 2010,

Actress Safiya Ahmed, who died on 26 February 2010,

Actress Amina Garba, who died on 21 November 2010,

Comedian and director Lawal Kaura, who died on 13 December 2011,

Director Muhammadu Balarabe Sango, who died on 1 December 2012

Africa Movie Academy Awards: Celebrating Africa’s film industries, building pan-African cinema

I realized with dismay, when I emerged from my house yesterday afternoon to go find a copy of the Weekly Trust, that I had done several near-all-nighters this week working on articles for a paper that would probably be one of the least read this year. Because of the election (that was not), there were very few people on the streets and I had to ride for about 15 minutes on an acaba to find a vender selling a newspaper. Here is this week’s column that I wrote on my experience at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Yenagoa, Bayelsa. I’ve included a few extra photos below. To read at the Trust site, click here. To read in the original version, click on the photo below, which will take you to a large readable copy. To read on my site, scroll down below the photo. I will upload the interview I did with The Figurine director, producer, and actor Kunle Afolayan later in the day. For another excellent post on AMAA, written by my travel buddy Fulbright scholar Bic Leu, check out her blog.

Celebrating Africa’s film industries, building of pan- African cinema

Saturday, 02 April 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

As my readers may have noticed from recent columns, this month for me has been a mad dash from one film event to another, from the FESPACO Pan-African film festival in Ouagadougou from February 26 to March 5, to a presentation at the “Reading and Producing Nollywood” symposium hosted at University of Lagos from March 23 to 25, to, finally, a rather unexpected but delightful invitation to attend the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) held in Yenagoa, Bayelsa, on 27 March.

Nollywood scholars Onookome Okome, Jonathan Haynes and Carmela Garritano trade laughs at the “Reading and Producing Nollywood” conference held at the University of Lagos, 23-25 March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

AMAA was a bizarre mix of the humble and glamorous that seems inherent to Nollywood. The flight from Lagos to Port Harcourt was filled with filmmakers, many of them from the diaspora, and we continued on to Yenagoa by bus. I sat at the back of a 12-seater between Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume, who won best Diaspora short for his film Precipice, and British filmmaker Wayne Saunders, who received a double nomination for Best Diaspora Feature for two feature films, Nothing Less and The Village. The next seat up, Nigerian Hollywood actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Hotel Rwanda, Wolverine), who most recently starred in Jeta Amata’s musical Inale [which later won the AMAA for best soundtrack] and the yet to be released Black Gold, was jammed in between Nollywood star Olu Jacobs and Aspire Magazine publisher Celine Loader. The cramped bus made it felt rather like a university outing, only with movie stars and filmmakers rather than students, and the three hour trip, through Port Harcourt traffic and over pot-holed roads, was long but jolly, with much loud debating about Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr, global inequalities, black consciousness, and quiet sharing of plans for future films. We ended up at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau, where hundreds of filmmakers milled about, eating food from buffet lines and trying to find places to sit before finally being transported to their hotels. The bureau became the defacto meeting and eating spot. The next day, I ran into Kannywood stars Ali Nuhu, Lawal Ahmad, and Rahama Hassan there.

RFI journalist, Kannywood actress Rahama Hassan, Radio France International journalist Salisu Hamisou, and actors Ali Nuhu and Lawal Ahmad at the AMAA press conference. (c) Carmen McCain

At a press conference on the afternoon of 27 March, AMAA jury members pointed out the purpose of the awards to unite Africa. AMAA CEO Peace Anyiam-Osigwe said, “AMAA is about everybody that is a filmmaker in Africa…It’s about you. We are Africans. We have no borders.” In this pan-African vision, the body seems to be following in the footsteps of earlier African cinema movements such as FEPACI (Federation of African filmmakers) and FESPACO Film festival. However, unlike these earlier, mostly Francophone, African initiatives, AMAA does not merely promote art films made by African filmmakers and often funded by Europe, but emphasizes the importance of actual film industries.

AMAA CEO Peace Anyiam-Osigwe speaks about the pan-African vision of the AMAA awards at a press conference, 27 March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

Beirut-based Zimbabwean juror Keith Shiri pointed out, “I think people who are familiar with FESPACO are also familiar with other infrastructures, which are really suffering because of the negative attitude which we have about ourselves.” Shiri said it was important to recognize AMAA as “the only platform in the whole continent, which is, in my view, celebrating African cinema, and trying to build an infrastructure which enables us to begin to evaluate and consider the importance of this industry.”

Film curator and AMAA juror Keith Shiri speaks at the AMAA press conference, 27 March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

The atmosphere of university outing transitioned to full-fledged Nollywood glamour by the time we arrived on the red carpet, Sunday night, where TV presenters hung out looking for interviews and camera flashes were constant. Outside, fans pressed their faces to the gaps in the wall. You could tell whenever a big star arrived by the volume of the roar outside.

American Fulbright Scholar Bic Leu, Best short film nominee Kenyan filmmaker Zipporah Nyaruri, Nigerian Hollywood actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim, American winner of the Best Diaspora feature LaQuita Cleare, and Nigerian-American Best short Diaspora film nominee Temi Ojo on the red carpet at the AMAA awards. (c) Carmen McCain

Best short film nominee Kenyan filmmaker Zipporah Nyaruri being interviewed on the red carpet. (c) Carmen McCain

Ghanaian star Majid Michel being interviewed on the red carpet. (c) Carmen McCain

The awards ceremony was hosted by Jim Iyke and Nse Ikpe-Etim, with other appearances by Rita Dominic, Kate Henshaw-Nuttal, Kunle Afolayan, Ali Nuhu, Olu Jacobs, and performances by Dr Sid, Wande Coal, Tee Mac, Ebisan, South African group Malaika, among others. It went from around 8:30pm to 2:30am, and was followed by a middle-of-the-night dinner at the Yenagoa government house. Compared to FESPACO, which was arty, elitist, and seemed irrelevant to the tastes of a popular African audience, the glamour of the AMAA awards was generated by beloved Nollywood stars, who arrived in fancy dress, gave interviews on the red carpet, presented awards, and took photos with their fans. As Keith Shiri had pointed out at the press conference, this was an event that celebrated and promoted film industry infrastructure, not just film. Peace Anyiam-Osigwe reinforced this point at the ceremony, “We should celebrate ourselves year in and year out… but I’d also like to see our filmmakers make money from what we are doing. So wherever you are in the next few years, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, I’m sure all over Africa, you’re going to have the chance to say I need you to realize the input I am making to my industry and to my country.”

Nollywood stars Jim Iyke and Nse Ikpe-Etim host the AMAA awards 2011 (c) Carmen McCain

AMAA awards adorn the table at the late night dinner, while the winners relax. (c) Carmen McCain

Perhaps because of this focus on commercially-viable films, the films nominated also seemed quite different from those on offer at FESPACO. Out of the over 56 films I counted from the AMAA nomination list and the 187 films in the FESPACO catalogue index, I could only find seven films that overlapped and only one overlap in prizes: South African film Hopeville won best film in the TV/Video category at FESPACO; At AMAA the film received nine nominations and one award for Themba Ndaba’s performance as Best Actor in a Leading Role. AMAA was much more Anglophone-focused than FESPACO, with fewer submissions from North and Francophone Africa.

Yet, it was a film from a Francophone country, Congo-Kinshasa, the edgy Viva Riva! that ended up sweeping the Awards, surpassing the five AMAAs won by Nigeria’s The Figurine by Kunle Afolayan last year, with six AMAAs for Best Film, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hoji Fortuna), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Marlene Longage), Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Director (Djo Tunda Wa Munga). According to producer Boris Vanglis as he jubilantly accepted the “Best Film” award, Viva Riva, which had been absent from FESPACO, is “the first film in Congo-Kinshasa in 20 years in Lingala.”

Although Nollywood glamour dominated the evening and though there was a much larger presence of Nigerian and Ghanaian films nominated for the awards, only three Nigerian films won awards:  Niji Akanni’s Aramotu won Best Costume Design and Best Nigerian film. Jeta Amata’s Inale won Best Soundtrack, and Obi Emelonye’s Mirror Boy won Best Young Actor for the performance by Ugandan actor Edward Kagutuzi. Ghana was represented by three awards for Sinking Sands, directed by Leila Djansi, which won awards for Best Screenplay, Best Make-Up, and Best Actress in Leading role for actress Ama K. Abebrese.

Unfortunately, the nature of the event, as an awards ceremony rather than a festival, meant that I had seen none of the films that were awarded, and it seemed somewhat problematic that despite the appeal to a popular audience in the glamour of Nollywood and celebration of industry, the films awarded, much like those at FESPACO, seemed inaccessible to an African audience beyond their own regions. AMAA selection committee chairman Shaibu Husseini noted this predicament, pointing out the difficulties of an award based on popularity since films released in one part of the continent are not always seen in others. “By the time you put it to popularity test, the text messages will come from the countries where these films have been produced. And by the time, you award the films, it will not be representational.”

AMAA Selection committee Chairman Shuaibu Husseini speaks at the press conference, 27 March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

Yet, despite the difficulties of such structures, I came away from the AMAA awards with a more positive feeling than I had from FESPACO. FESPACO felt like a tired old legend moving into its last days. AMAA, even with its moments of disorganization, felt vibrant and full of promise, like its Nollywood base. Even though the films awarded are still unavailable to most of their African audiences, perhaps the popular focus of the African Movie Academy Awards, will work towards building a canon of African films made by African film industries, not just by cineastes. And hopefully some wise distributer with pan-African connections will seize the opportunity and make these films available all over the continent, giving accessibility and a public face to a truly popular African cinema.

More Photos of the Event:

To see my whole Flickr album of AMAA, click here.

Best short film nominee Zipporah Nyaruri with Best Diaspora short film nominee Temi Ojo. (c) Carmen McCain


Rahama Hassan laughs as Ali Nuhu makes a point. (c) Carmen McCain

Kannywood star Lawal Ahmad. (c) Carmen McCain

Kannywood star Rahama Hassan. (c) Carmen McCain

Best Diaspora feature double nominee, Wayne Saunders being interviewed. (c) Carmen McCain

Best Young Actor winner Edward Kagutuzi and ‘Inale’ actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim. (c) Carmen McCain

Hakeem Kae-Kazim photographs Zipporah Nyaruri pre-award ceremony. (c) Carmen McCain

Best Diaspora feature film winner LaQuita Cleare and Best Short film nominee Zipporah Nyaruri pre-AMAA ceremony. (c) Carmen McCain

Me, Bic Leu, Zipporah Nyaruri, Temi Ojo, and LaQuita Cleare.

Hollywood Nigerian actor Razaaq Adoti on the red carpet. (c) Carmen McCain

Best Diaspora short film nominee, Sowande Tichawonna, on the red carpet. (c) Carmen McCain

Fulbright scholar Bic Leu, Best Diaspora short film nominee Temi Ojo, and Best short film nominee Zipporah Nyaruri. (c) Carmen McCain

Best Diaspora short film nominee Temi Ojo on the red carpet. (c) Carmen McCain

Best Diaspora Short film nominee Sowande Tichawonna, Actor Razaaq Adoti, and Best Short Film nominee Zipporah Nyaruri. (c) Carmen McCain

Best Diaspora feature winner LaQuita Cleare is interviewed on the red carpet pre-ceremony (before she knew she won). (c)Carmen McCain

Best Short Film nominee Kenyan filmmaker Zipporah Nyaruri with Freedom Express reporter. (c) Carmen McCain

Bayelsa State Cultural group performs at the beginning of the Award Ceremony (c) Carmen McCain

Kannywood crossover actor Ali Nuhu helps present the best award for Best African language film. (c)Carmen McCain

Nollywood star Olu Jacobs was mobbed by fans wanting a photograph with him, and he patiently put up with them for about 30 minutes. He poses here with L.A. based Best Diaspora Feature award winner LaQuita Cleare. (c) Carmen McCain

Kannywood/Nollywood star Ali Nuhu at the late night AMAA dinner. (c) Carmen McCain

A late night dinner at the Bayelsa State government house after the AMAA awards (c) Carmen McCain

L.A. based actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim with Fulbright scholar Bic Leu at the late night. (c) Carmen McCain

Anchor Baby and the dark underbelly of the American Dream

I’m behind at posting my old columns, but I was reminded of this article that I wrote a month and a half ago, while briefly sitting beside Omoni Oboli at the dinner after the AMAA award ceremony. Omoni Oboli was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of the pregnant Joyce in Lonzo Nzekwe’s film Anchor Baby. She didn’t win the award, but she certainly deserved it. Her admirable acting in The Figurine and Anchor Baby puts her on my favourite Nigerian actress list. To read the article, which was published on 12 February, on the Weekly Trust site, click here. To read the hard copy of the article, click on the photo below, which will take you to a readable version of the article on flickr. To read it on this site, just scroll down past the photo.

Anchor Baby and the dark underbelly of the American Dream

Saturday, 12 February 2011 00:00 –

When anyone asks me what my favourite Nigerian movie is, I tell them it’s The Figurine, which was directed, produced, and acted in by Kunle Afolayan.

The film has a tight and continuously gripping storyline that polishes and refines Nollywood genres of spiritual thriller and family drama. But if I’m asked to recommend films, I’ll closely follow my recommendation of The Figurine with the film I went to see last week in Abuja’s Silverbird cinema: Anchor Baby, written, directed, and produced by the debut filmmaker Lonzo Nzekwe, who claims he taught himself filmmaking by reading books and watching “making of” documentaries. In Anchor Baby, which won Best film at the Harlem International Film festival among other awards, Figurine actress Omoni Oboli is compelling in her role as a pregnant Nigerian woman on the run from the American Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Anchor Baby, the title referring to the derogatory American term for babies born as citizens in the U.S. to non-citizens, is a cautionary tale about the dark side of the American dream. The disillusion of emigrants from Nigeria is a theme that has been dealt with in short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, EC Osondu, Helon Habila, and others, and is becoming a genre of Nigerian films produced in America as well. The yet to be released film Unwanted Guest directed by Daniel Ademinokan and set in New York, for example, explores the domestic complications an already married Nigerian man faces when he marries an American woman for a green card. The 2008 Hausa film Kano to Saudiyya directed and acted by the late Ziklifu Mohammed deals with similar immigration themes of disillusion with life in Saudi Arabia.

The United States doesn’t come across in a very flattering light in Anchor Baby, but it is an America I recognize, even though it was shot entirely in Ontario, Canada. I walked into the cinema five minutes late just as we see the character, Paul Unonga (Sam Sarpong), run across a parking lot and down the grassy incline of an industrial park, chased by American Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The film is shot on the film-quality digital RED camera, but the lush colours the RED is capable of capturing are toned down here into dreary grays and browns. It is winter, and the grass is dead. Paul runs past rows of dirty semi-trucks. This is the ugly side of America, not often seen in glamorous Hollywood films. ICE officials eventually catch him at home in the bleak white hallway of his low-income housing flat. Paul’s pregnant wife Joyce (Omoni Oboli) luckily misses the immigration sweep because she has gone out for an early morning walk. The rest of the film follows the trials of Joyce, as she tries to fulfill the couple’s dream of staying in the U.S. until her baby is born, so that the baby, the “anchor” of the title, will be granted U.S. citizenship.

The celebrated comforts of American life, the film points out, are available only when one is linked into an organized system of legal identity. Once her husband is deported, Joyce finds herself in an almost impossible situation. To escape the immigration officials, she is forced to leave their apartment. The isolation of American life means she knows no one well enough to ask for assistance. She can’t get a job because she has no work papers. Staying at cheap motels becomes too expensive for the small savings she has left, but she is unable to rent a new apartment without government issued id. Similarly, she is unable to receive pre-natal checkups at the clinic, because she has neither health insurance, government id, or the large sum of cash needed to see to the doctor. Eventually, Joyce becomes dependent on the kindness of strangers, the sympathetic free lance writer Susan, brilliantly acted by Terri Oliver, and her interior designer husband, Tim (Colin Paradise). But while she appreciates their kindness, Joyce becomes increasingly uncomfortable by her benefactors’ marriage problems. Her loneliness is portrayed best as she stands on the verandah of a cheap hotel, staring out over the dead winter landscape, an American flag flapping on the railing beneath her.

Although the focus of the film is on Joyce’s experiences, there is also a brief portrayal of the coping mechanism other illegal immigrants face, in the pathos of a Mexican family who make a living out of forging government documents. The film ultimately shows the price of the anchor baby, and the ironies lurking behind the American dream.

I would show this film anywhere, to Nigerians wanting to move to the often idealized U.S., and to Americans who don’t understand the challenges immigrants face. However, there are certain moments that, to my American eye, seem off. When Joyce stays in a basement apartment, the windows should be high, submerged in the ground at eye-level, yet there are points at which we see low sitting window sills and a light source that seem more appropriate for a first floor room. When Paul calls Joyce from the immigration detention centre and tells her to move out of their apartment, it seems strange that this phone call, placed from prison, is not tapped by the police and that Joyce is not picked up by immigration officials before she moves out of the apartment.

My own encounters with American immigration and customs have been few compared to what immigrants face. When I attended university in the U.S., I volunteered with Amnesty International to interview illegal immigrants being held in a prison for deportation to see if there was any way we could assist them with legal help. On a recent trip to the U.S. I wore an abaya and veil to see if I would be profiled by immigration officials at the airport. I was. The only person dressed like a Muslim in the line at a security checkpoint waiting to exit passport control into America, I was also the only one chosen for a pat-down body search. In both instances, the immigration officers I observed displayed more of a bored and unthoughtful officiousness, an institutionalized bias, than deliberate brutality, more like what is seen in the film where Joyce Unanga is denied an apartment and health care because she doesn’t have insurance card or government id. The kind but condescending and bureaucratic immigration officer in the airport, who calls up his boss and says he has an “illegal” for him, is likely more usual in America than the trigger-happy immigration officer Mark Castello (Michael Scratch), who drops racial slurs and blows cigarette smoke into Paul Unonga’s face. But the over-the-top villain works well for dramatic effect, and there are certainly many documented cases of police brutality from the assault against Haitian Abner Louima in a New York jail and the shooting of Guinean Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, New York, in the 1990s, to more recent acts of discrimination, torture, and secret extradition following Patriot Act laws of the 2000s. This is the dark underbelly of the American dream.

In terms of world cinema, Anchor Baby reminds me of the Indian film, My Name is Khan, released last year. In the film, an autistic Indian immigrant living in California is discriminated against by his neighborhood and by airport officials because of his Muslim name. Seemingly made for a non-American audience, My Name is Khan sometimes fudges geographical detail and stereotypes non-Indian characters (I think particularly of the way African American characters are portrayed) but tells a compelling story of how differences strengthen, rather than weaken, American culture. And, to be fair, the exaggeration of detail that you find in My Name is Khan or Anchor Baby are nothing so extreme as the stereotyping of other cultures and countries found in Hollywood films. There is something quite satisfying about these non-American interventions into representations of America, which like the Al Jazeera coverage of the U.S., as opposed to the glossy portrayals of Hollywood and CNN, focus on the poor and downtrodden of “God’s own country.” In a time in which the film industries of an established Bollywood and a rising Nollywood have relegated America’s celebrated industry to number three, and where an economically depressed America seems to be struggling increasingly with xenophobia against non-citizens, we can expect more of the same. I eagerly await Lonzo Nzekwe’s next film.

UPDATE: 25 March 2012.  You can rent, buy, or watch a preview of Anchor Baby, in the embedded video here (Anchor Baby).

 

Champions of Our Time, The Figurine, and Nigeria’s Rebranding Project at FESPACO

The past two weeks in my column “My Thoughts Exactly” in the Weekly Trust, I have briefly analyzed and compared the two Nigerian films, The Figurine and Champions of Our Time, that were in competition in the FESPACO Video Feature category. (The week before that I had talked about the politics of what FESPACO considers a film, in “FESPACO: Politics of Video and Afolayan’s The Figurine”). Champions of Our Time, directed by Mak Kusare, won the jury prize (second prize) in the category, as well as a special ECOWAS jury prize. I will copy the articles below (and will add the hard copy of this week’s article when I am able to find one. To read the hard copy, just click on the photo and it should take you to a version big enough to read.) To read on the Weekly Trust site, click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Champions of Our Time, The Figurine and Nigeria’s rebranding project at FESPACO

Saturday, 12 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

As Africa’s longest running and most famous “pan-African” film festival, FESPACO, kicked off last week, the absence of Nigeria’s sprawling film industry, cited as the second largest in the world by UNESCO, was glaring.

Out of the one hundred and eighty-seven films listed in the official festival catalogue index, only five films from Nigeria were scheduled. Restless City, made by expatriate Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu Waheed, was the only Nigerian film in the main feature-length film competition but was withdrawn before it could be screened. Didi Cheeka’s gut-wrenching Bloodstones and Julius Morno’s whimsical The Camera (and apparently Mak Kusare’s Duty [Please note this is a correction from my earlier mistake of identifying the film as Ninety Degrees, a feature length film directed in 2006 by Mak Kusare-CM 9/4/11], though it was not listed in the catalogue) were shown as part of a short film special screening but were not in competition. Only two feature Nigerian films Champions of Our Time directed by Mak Kusare and The Figurine directed by Kunle Afolayan even made it into the condescending TV/Video Fiction Category, reserved for feature films submitted on digital formats rather than 35 millimeter film.

Considering the noticeable omission of Nigeria from the festival, I imagine that by the time the jury for the “Best work in TV/Video” category met, they were feeling a certain amount of political pressure to award a Nigerian film with a prize. They awarded South African film Hopeville directed by Trengoue John with the best video prize, and chose Nigeria’s Champions of Our Time directed by Mak Kusare, which was also awarded an ECOWAS special prize, for the special jury (second) prize.

Since I often argue that Nollywood films should be taken seriously, I should be ecstatic that the film Champions of Our Time, a heartwarming, nicely shot tale of a child in a wheelchair and her struggle to participate in a secondary school television quiz competition, did Nigeria proud by winning two prizes at FESPACO. Unfortunately, although I am happy that a Nigerian film received such recognition, I find the selection of Champions of Our Time for the video prize problematic, perhaps because it seemed such an obvious snub of the only other feature-length Nigerian film in the competition, The Figurine, a film I have mentioned in this column as being “the best Nigerian film I have ever seen.”

I had expected The Figurine to win the category. It pushes genre elements developed by Nollywood in a new direction with beautiful cinematography, a moving soundtrack placed at all the right moments, excellent acting and set design, and sophisticated story rooted in certain cultural obsessions as developed in both in Nigerian “high” literature and more popular art forms. I did not see Hopeville so have no point of comparison, but I saw Champions of Our Time, or at least enough of it, to conclude that, at least to me, The Figurine, is by far the superior film, in terms of literary and artistic merit, if not in terms of promotion of a certain social agenda.

Champions of Our Time deals with an important topic I’ve never seen featured in any other Nigerian film, Mak Kusare is a clearly talented director, and the film has a very real emotional power, featuring several touching performances between Segun Arinze and Treasure Obasi, and an electrifying one by Ejike Asiegbu, whose character observes on national television that people throw small change at him, assuming him to be a beggar simply because he is in a wheelchair. However, compared to The Figurine, Champions is formulaic and sentimental, the sort of “disadvantaged character comes out triumphant and teaches everyone else a lesson” that has been done hundreds of times in Hollywood and Bollywood. A formula is fine if it is done in an exciting way. After all, oral tradition is built of formulas, individual performances judged better or worse by the skill with which they are executed. But when it comes to a written screenplay, there’s only so much so much even the best director and actors can do with a stiff and didactic script that quickly reveals its government funding in long memorized textbook passages on Nigerian history parroted by the contestants in the quiz show.

I admit my viewing experience of both Nigerian films was not balanced and my comparison is perhaps not quite fair. First, Champions of Our Time and The Figurine are wildly different in genre, and ideally we should appreciate each on its own merits, the social motivation/advocacy film for what it is, the spiritual thriller for what it is. I would not normally discuss the two films in the same essay. In a different context, I would probably be more positive about the intentions of Champions of Our Time, which is geared towards children—the sort of film we need more of in Nigeria—and the laudable highlighting of difficulties faced by physically challenged people in Nigeria. Second, my viewing experience of the two films was not at all equal. I’ve seen The Figurine twice, once with a stunned audience at Zuma Film Festival in Abuja, and second at FESPACO. On the other hand, I have only seen a preview copy, not even the final cut, of Champions of Our Time at FESPACO after the official copy did not work in the projector. Not only did the picture have “preview” floating over it for a third of the screening, but I did not see the end of the film because the DVD stopped at the emotional climax of the film when Sophia, a young girl in the wheelchair, decides to speak out at the quiz show award ceremony.

In obsessing over what could have made both FESPACO and ECOWAS judges choose Champions of Our Time for their prizes, I have begun to think that the decision was rooted in privileging a simplistic interpretation of “third cinema” (even if funded by problematic sources) over the crowd-pleasing “popular art” of Nollywood. Perhaps Champions won because of its good intentions and because it dealt with a topic that has not been dealt with before in Nollywood—not because it was a particularly exceptional film

At first glance, Champions of Our Time is the film that more self-consciously deals with social issues in Nigerian society. It tells the story of a competition between a privileged girl, Sharon (Feyisola Owuyemi), who wants to win the St. Flair’s NGO sponsored secondary school quiz competition so her father will give her permission to stay in Lagos, and a physically challenged girl, Sophia (Treasure Obasi), who wants to win so that she will have the money to have surgery abroad. Over the course of the competition, Sophia becomes “the voice” of those living with physical challenges in Nigeria. One scene in the film provides insight into the politics of award-giving. As the two girls reveal their equally competitive skills at memorization for the quiz, Sharon’s wealthy mother (Ayo Adesanya) tries to undermine Sophia’s credibility to an already wildly prejudiced committee member (Joke Silva). The mother argues that the committee should think about the international reputation of Nigeria, especially with the new rebranding exercise: if Sophia went on to represent Nigeria in France, people outside would say that the best Nigeria could offer is a “crippled girl.” This statement reveals the character’s prejudice and serves as a critique, on the part of the filmmakers, of such shallow ideas of “rebranding.” Of course, the film implies, the “more enlightened” St. Flair’s organization of France, which was so wildly misinterpreted by its Nigerian committee members, would see nothing amiss or embarrassing about a contestant in a wheelchair.

Ostensibly speaking out in defense of those with physical differences, the film appeals to film festival judges with its political correct ideology. We are the opposite of the prejudiced mother, the film, and its government backers, seems to say. We dare to present a film to represent our nation that features a girl in a wheelchair as the main character and reveals the prejudice of our citizens. This is Nigeria rebranded as UN-charter compliant.

The problem is that it is all too obvious. The film glosses over the complexity of actual experience. The committee member villains are just a bit too flat and stupid and willfully hateful, and the physically challenged people are portrayed as helpless victims until bright young Sophia “becomes their voice.” Even the man with the most powerful voice in the film (Ejike Asiegbu), a PhD holder in agricultural engineering who crawls up three flights of stairs to interrupt the quiz show in defense of Sophia, sighs that he has not been able to get a job. Of course, there are terrible prejudices in Nigeria, as well as a lack of public policy to address the needs of the physically challenged. An exposé of such discrimination in film is a necessary corrective, but it would have been even more empowering and ultimately more respectful to those many professionals with physical challenges living in Nigeria to at least allow the PhD in the wheelchair a job.

(To be concluded)

Part 2 (click on link to go to Weekly Trust site version)

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Last week, I questioned the motivations behind FESPACO and ECOWAS juries awarding Champions of Our Time, a film dramatizing a quiz competition between two secondary school students, the wealthy Sharon (Feyisola Owuyemi) and the underprivileged and physically-challenged Sophia (Treasure Obasi). I argue that the more deserving Nigerian film in the FESPACO “video feature” competition was the The Figurine, which depicts the changed lives of several Youth Corpers after they find a figurine of the goddess Araromire.

The politics of prize-giving in Champions of Our Time, and the competition between the privileged Sharon and the marginalized Sophia, becomes a prescient introduction to the politics of prize-giving at FESPACO and other award ceremonies. On the face of it, it seems that Sophia has symbolically triumphed. A film highlighting a social problem in Nigeria, featuring a young girl living with a disability, was up against an unapologetically commercial film that had won five AMAA awards and had played to sold out theatres in London. In competition, it might seem that Champions of Our Time was a David against the Goliath of The Figurine. But is this really a fair comparison? Not to me.

While Kunle Afolayan worked independent of established funding structures, funding his film with product placement and a bank loan (which he paid off after screenings at sold out theatres, apparently accomplished by innovative word-of-mouth marketing on facebook), Champions of Our Time was apparently funded by the Lagos State government. Although, The Figurine won 5 AMAA awards, official structures in Nigeria seem to favour their own Champions of Our Time, which rebrands Nigeria as actually being concerned about social issues rather than just embarrassing “ritual films,” a theme The Figurine uses and questions rather than avoiding. At the Zuma Film festival in Abuja, I was shocked when The Figurine, which blew away the audience, received only an honorable mention. Champions of Our Time (which I had not yet seen) won best film category.

If, as I suggested last week, award juries are rewarding Champions for its compliance with the ideals of Third Cinema—outlined by theorist Teshome Gabriel as a “public service institution” which presents the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples” and works as “an ideological tool,” by performers “speaking indigenous language”—how well does the film measure up? On the surface, the exposé of how people living with disabilities are ostracized, seems to well fit the goals of such a political cinema. When one digs deeper, less so.

First, the dialogue was scripted in an over-formal English nobody, other than perhaps the Queen, actually speaks, and which the best of Nollywood has moved past. Second, the entire story revolves around a rather boring quiz show contest, to which the secret of winning seems to be how well one can memorize information in a study manual. If the producers were going after Slumdog Millionaires style success by dramatizing a quiz show, their intentions fell flat.

Even more problematic, while Champions of Our Time follows self-consciously in a “third cinema” tradition of national development, it also reveals a dependency on the affirmation of a Western audience, just as FESPACO and Nigeria’s rebranding program do. Despite all its Nigerian government sponsorship and reciting of Nigerian history, the characters in Champions of Our Time seem to look outward for help. St. Flairs, the organization that sponsors the competition, is based in France, and when the doctor (Segun Arinze) challenges the prejudiced interpretations of the Nigerian St. Flair’s members, he appeals to the more enlightened sensibilities of the European main branch. He goes into such a long description of St. Flairs that I had to google it afterwards to see if the protracted speech was part of a product placement. (It was not, though such valorization of a French NGO could be seen as a plug for French film funding.) The French founders are obviously more enlightened about “physically challenged” people than the Nigerian members. So is the UN, which, the doctor repeatedly claims, has “expunged” the term “disabled” from its language, though such a vocabulary distinction would only matter to an English-speaking audience, and I could find no evidence for this claim on the UN website for the “Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities.” The superiority of NGO work in Nigeria or the appeal to the outside as the arbiter of “more enlightened” views and source of aid is not questioned.

As a teacher, I was particularly disturbed by the kinds of vague questions, expected to be answered in a few minutes, asked in the quiz show (one being “Explain Islam and its Origins”). At one point when Sophia gets stuck on a question, even though she is portrayed as an intelligent girl who reads Time Magazine and is interested in international politics, she doesn’t venture any response from her own general knowledge but rather complains that the answer was missing from the manual she was given to memorize. Instruction which encourages memorization of government textbooks rather than critical thinking is exactly the sort of neocolonial education that Burkinabé filmmaker Dani Kouyaté critiqued in his film Keita: the heritage of the Griot. But, this pedagogy, apparently endorsed by St. Flair’s of France, is not questioned here. Finally, while certainly understandable, the intention of Sophia to use prize money to travel abroad for surgery further reinforces a dependency on outside structures. Ultimately, though the film nobly attempts to “give voice” to the those living with disabilities in Nigeria, thus self-consciously following in a political “third cinema” tradition, Champions seems more an appeal to an elite to be more politically correct in their language than an actual challenge to the deep power structures of society. That said, if the film motivates the elite to use their power to to lobby for more inclusive policy changes, it will have done its job.

The only political claim Kunle Afolayan makes for The Figurine, on the other hand, is that it is an “all-Nigerian” production made by Nigerians in Nigeria. I would venture to argue that its success as a “national Nigerian film” comes from its independence of international, NGO, or government funding, as well as its story rooted in structures of Yoruba storytelling. The Figurine has much more in common with the concerns developed in Nigerian theatre and literature than Champions, asking deeper questions about the psyche of people who often shrug away from personal responsibility with spiritual explanations. It resonates with popular Yoruba plays from the traveling theatre, and intellectual plays by Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan; with Nollywood films, and novels by writers like Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, and Helon Habila, which question how one navigates the complex interaction between one’s destiny as foretold by the gods and personal responsibility. The film makes self-conscious, though subtle references, to such influences as can be seen in the tributes to Soyinka scattered through the text and the casting of artist Chief Muraina Oyelami, one of the founding members of the Duro Lapido Theatre Company, as the Professor who explains the myth of Araromire (as well as using Oyelami’s gallery as a location and paintings as props).

In The Figurine the dialogue effortlessly transitions between Yoruba, English, and pidgin in the way Lagosians actually talk and adds to social characterization in the same way that codeswitching between French and Wolof does in Ousmane Sembene’s celebrated films. The pidgen banter between youth corpers and their trainer provides a crowd-pleasing humour I imagine got lost in translation to the FESPACO jury.

Of course The Figurine has its share of imperfections. When I first watched the film at Zuma Film Festival, I was looking for them. I wasn’t sure I believed all the characters were as young as they were supposed to be at the beginning. Tosin Sido, who plays Femi’s (Ramsey Noah) sister, sometimes has that Nollywood whine. I was initially annoyed by the dramatic excesses of Femi’s girlfriend played by Fulola Awofiyebi-Raimi, who is desperate to land a man in her life. I thought she embodied an unfair stereotype of the aging single woman, but, by the end of the film, she won me over as her character deepens and we see her giddiness harden into steel. On a technical level, there are a few moments where it looks like the camera operator was having trouble pulling focus, and the lighting in the storm scene seemed off.

But those moments are less important to me than the brilliance of the overall effect: the story, the soundtrack, the cinematography, the acting. It may be that The Figurine’s defiant independence, unapologetic Naija-ness, and unrepentant commercial appeal is what turned off the FESPACO judges. Yet, it is these same aspects that have made Nollywood Africa’s largest cinema and the second largest film industry in the world. And it is the snobbery against popular audience appeal and an uncritical promotion of tired interpretations of “third cinema” that make FESPACO increasingly more irrelevant.

Concluded.


UPDATE 9 April 2011

Here are the trailers for both films [NOTE that these trailers are embedded in this blog under Fair Use laws, for review purposes]:

Champions of Our Time

The Figurine


As I noted in my review, it was probably not fair of me to be so hard on the multiple award-winning Champions of Our Time without seeing the entire film, while comparing it to The Figurine, which I have now seen twice and am judging on overall effect. The reason I did so was because I didn’t know how I could see the entire film, which is not yet released on video, before the relevance of my article on FESPACO passed and I felt what I had seen was enough to make the specific critiques I made. As I also noted, the two films really shouldn’t be compared, as they are doing two very different things–my problem was in the politics of the award-giving. To read more positive articles about the film, see these links:

“Creatively packaged films that empower the Voiceless submitted to Nairobi’s 5th Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival” in Art Matters, 12 May 2010

“Nollywood Goes Abuzz as ‘Champions of Our Time’ Premiers in Lagos” in Modern Ghana News, 26 November 2010.

‘Champions of Our Time’: Another Big Nollywood Movie Already Winning Awards” in Leadership, 5 December 2010.

Champions of Our Time is a Must See Nollywood Movie” in 24/7 Nigeria, 10 December 2010.

Champions of Our Time Wins Multiple Awards” in Supple Magazine, 10 December 2010.

“Mak Kusare: Nollywood’s Finest” in NEXT,” 11 January 2011

“Nigerian Film Wins Award at FESPACO 2011” in The Compass, 19 March 2011

In response to Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse” an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (c) Sunmi Smart-Cole via African-Writing Online

When I first began to read Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s op-ed piece “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse,” published in on 12 December 2010 in the New York Times, I thought I would enjoy the piece. [If you have trouble finding the full text of the article without signing into the New York Times site, you can find it copied over onto the USA/Africa Dialogues blog and now also on the NEXT website.] She argues that it may be a blessing that Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o did not win a Nobel Prize this year, reasoning that such a prize would encourage young African writers to aim to be the “next Ngugi.” New African writers should pursue their own style, Nwaubani contends, rather than slavishly imitating the elders of African literature.  Although it does not necessarily follow that honouring a writer for a lifetime of work must necessarily create slavish imitations, I am sympathetic to arguments about pursuing new styles and themes, especially coming from a new Nigerian author who in I Do Not Come to You by Chance has given us one of the freshest and funniest novels I’ve read in years. Nwaubani has been the Nigerian author you are most likely to hear me recommending as a good read this year.

However, my first eyebrow began to rise when I read her statement. “Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style.” This is a fair generalization. A Grain of Wheat, Arrow of God, and The Interpreters do make for studies in high seriousness. But has Nwaubani read the complete works of each of these authors? Sure, Ngugi’s English language work does tend to be quite sober and earnest, as do Achebe’s early novels. But Ngugi’s satirical fable Devil on the Cross(translated from Gikuyu) is one of the most simultaneously hilarious and ideological works of African literature I’ve read–and much of its richness, I think, comes from it’s original composition in Gikuyu. Soyinka’s fiction is, granted, famously obtuse, but performances of the Brother Jero plays are some of the funniest and most thought-provoking things my family has seen on stage. Achebe has similar humorous moments in Anthills of the Savannah.

Even if I were inclined to agree with her in general about the serious nature of the “old masters,” I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this statement:

“Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.”

I don’t greatly care if Ngugi wa Thiong’o wins the Nobel or not. I think it would be good prestige for African literature around the globe, and I think he certainly deserves it. Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross almost always makes my “favourite books” list, and I would be delighted if he received the Nobel in the future. But were I trying to make a point about the blessings of Ngugi not receiving the prize this year, as Nwaubani does, my argument would be that the value of Ngugi’s work and of other African literature does not depend on the judgment of some prize committee in Scandanavia, which has made quite conservative selections in the past, but rather on the importance it holds first in the eyes of its “home” audience in Africa.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 15 October 2006 (c) CM

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 15 October 2006 (c) CM

I was, to put it bluntly, horrified by the assumptions with which Nwaubani draws her over-easy conclusions in this short piece. Whether or not Ngugi ever wins the prize, I wish there would be many more African writers who would copy, not him, or his style, but his commitment to writing in the language he grew up speaking. Why is great literature in Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa (or Tiv, Itsikeri, or Nupe) a shudder-worthy accomplishment? Nwaubani seems to be implying that the mere fact that people speak and laugh and love and dare even to write in different languages is furthering “tribal differences”  She says “This is not the variety we need.” On the contrary, I would argue this is exactly the variety we need.

Of course, we also need translation. Translation, as I have heard Professor Ngugi say on multiple occasions, is the only equal relationship between languages. Why should we not translate works of Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo into English or even into each other, in the same way that Norwegian or Japanese (smaller languages than many African languages) works are translated into other languages? Why is “the Nigerian reader,” by default, defined as an English speaker. This sort of thinking merely furthers the distinction between the elite and the masses in Nigeria. To my mind, it is not African language literature that furthers divisions between Nigerian peoples, but rather this sort of thinking that sees African languages the enemy rather than a source of creativity and celebration–promoting monolingualism in English rather than the multilingualism that has long been a strength of the continent.

Why is there a dearth of reading culture of African literature in Nigeria? Much of it probably is that there is not enough of the funny, light-reading novels like Nwaubani’s available. But much of it may also have to do  with how “reading culture” in the Nigerian context is almost always defined as reading culture in English. Does Nwaubani know that there is a flourishing market of Hausa language literature in Northern Nigeria that crosses borders into Niger, Cameroon, Ghana, and even further flung places like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia where there are Hausa speakers? Does she know that one of the richest sources of women’s writing and women’s voices in Nigeria is being written in Hausa, where hundreds of well-known and beloved female authors write about love, marriage and their everyday experiences, or that Hausa novelists have long dealt with the national experience of being Nigerian? The bestselling Hausa novel, thus far, In da So da Kauna self-published in two parts in 1991 and 1992 by Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino sold over 100,000 copies (200,000 if you count both parts), which although hardly a New York Times bestseller is a good selling book even for Western publishers like Penguin or Random House. Is that literature (and what I hear is also a rather flourishing Yoruba literary scene) doomed to be trampled and denounced by Nigerian intellectuals and English-language writers because it is not written in the “language of unity,” which because of the history of colonialism happens to be English? Is it doomed to be trampled and denounced because, since no one has translated it, it has not been read by those large corporate publishers in America and the UK, who have made the careers of so many recent Nigerian authors writing in English?

I intend no disrespect for African literature in English here. It has its beauties and its advantages, such as a more immediate global and, yes, national audience. But we NEED literature in African languages because embedded within their etymology is history and a rich cultural heritage that we will lose if they die. These languages should be given the chance to develop same way that English language literature has developed, through literature. And this English language literature would never have developed had not rebels like Chaucer or Shakespeare insisted in writing in the vernacular rather than the more elite Latin that was the universal language of the educated elite in Europe at that time. We need such literature in the same way that we need literature in Danish, Mandarin, or Tamil. We need such literature because it is often in that literature you can capture exactly the kind of light-hearted banter, the vast reading audience, and the stories of ordinary working class Nigerians that Nwaubani is seeking. Perhaps, more people across the country would read if more Nigerian language literature were translated. Rather than calling for the death of African language literature, I would rather call for the investment in scholarship in and publication of this literature and the commitment of writers willing to translate it. Maybe then, Nwaubani will recognize her fellow “literary groundbreakers,” not in the old sober masters of the English language, but in those of her contemporaries who capture millions of readers in the language they speak every day.

UPDATE 19 December 2010. Since my response to Nwaubani’s article shortly after I read it last Sunday, a number of brilliant responses from African writers and intellectuals have popped up around the internet. Here are some of them:

“In Africa, The Laureate’s Curse” by Chielozona Eze on Africa Literature News and Reviews, December 12

“Not so, Adaobi” by Chuma Nwokolo on AfricanWriting.com, on December 12

“The Laureates Curse? I think not” on Kinna Reads, December 14

“The Nobel and Ngugi’s Cause–a short response to Tricia Adaobi’s article, In Africa the Laureate’s Curse” by Nana Fredua-Agyeman on ImageNations, December 14

“Why Nwaubani was Wrong” on Nigerians Talk, on December 15

“Nwaubani, Ngugi, and the Nobel” on Molara Wood’s Wordsbody, December 18

And for a piece arguing the opposite of what Nwaubani wrote, see Zoe Norridge’s piece in the Guardian, “Why Ngugi wa Thiong’o should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

[UPDATE 13 February 2011. I am currently uploading photos and links to some my column in the Weekly Trust. I used this essay, slightly edited, as one of my columns on 18 December 2011: “Regarding Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s ‘In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse.’” To read the piece in the original version, click on the photo below which will take you to a photo large enough to read.

“Questioning Love” –my second installment in my column

Here is the second week of my column, published on page 29 of Weekly Trust. The title I submitted was “Questioning Love,” which I prefer a bit more than “Questioning Love of the Hausa kind” because part of my point was that love stories universally often pose questions to the larger society. I briefly discuss Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet in its Baz Luhrman incarnation, and then move on to a discussion of Hausa love films, focusing on the film Balaraba, directed by Aminu Saira, screenplay by Nasir Gwangwazo, and starring Sadiya Gyale, Adam Zango, and Baballe Hayatu. To read the article on the Weekly Trust site, click on this link. To read the article in it’s original version, click on the photo. Your cursor should show the sign of a magnifying glass. Click on the photo again and it will expand to a large readable version. Let me know if you have any problems reading. To watch the trailer for Balaraba, scroll down below the photo, or click here.

Update 26 Jun 2012: Here is a trailer for Balaraba:

My new column in Weekly Trust. First installment.

A few months ago, the editor of Weekly Trust, offered me a column in the paper, and my first piece came out this past Saturday on page 31. In my column-writing rookieness, I had misunderstood the word count he had quoted me, so, once I saw it published, I was awe-inspired by my editor’s skill in cutting down a piece that had been twice the length, while still keeping most of the flow. However, I decided that since I do have this blog, I would post the longer version of the piece here, which allows for more details and context, and where I can post a few more photos to illustrate the content. I’ve gone ahead and taken a few of the suggested cuts, so this is a hybrid between what I submitted and what was published. The photos and the column title “My Thoughts Exactly” that appeared in the Weekly Trust were also the editors choice….  I copy a photo of the column as printed here (if you click on the photo, it will take you to a link with a larger version that you can read), and the original non-cut piece below. [UPDATE: 21 October 2010: The soft copy is also available on the Trust website now]

I’d love your feedback on the column and suggestions for future subjects.

Enjoy

 

"Why the beginning is the best place to start" Weekly Trust, page 31. Carmen McCain's first column

 

I begin this column with a slight sense of trepidation. I am an American, venturing to write a weekly column about my interaction with contemporary popular arts in Nigeria, focusing on Hausa film, music, and literature. “What does an American have to say about Nigerian, and particularly Hausa, art that is worth reading?” you may ask.  So in this first piece, let me give you a background on myself and why I am so passionate about the arts in Northern Nigeria. I hope that you will come back next week for more.

 

Gidan Dabino Publishers, August 2005 (c) Carmen McCain

 

My first trip to Kano as an adult was in 2005. I had just spent nearly three months in Sokoto learning Hausa, as a part of a requirement for my U.S. based PhD programme in African Languages and Literature. A large part of that study had been reading Hausa novels and watching Hausa films, and I was newly starstruck by my meeting with Hausa novelists and filmmakers. My formal education, thus far, had been in literature, a BA in English and postgraduate work in African literature. Ever since my undergraduate days studying the Romantic movement of 19th century England, the Beat movement of 20th century America, and others, I had been fascinated by these intense creative historical movements, where writers and artists and philosophers and political activists work together and influence each other.  That August, when I first heard filmmakers in intense debate at the Centre for Hausa Cultural Studies on Zoo Road or sat with Hausa writers at the office of Gidan Dabino Publishing Company and listened to them discuss the massive numbers of novels they were selling, I felt a sense of déjà vu . This was one of those rich historical arts moments I had always wanted to be a part of—and it was here in Hausa in Northern Nigeria, a place I had often heard disparaged as being full of illiterates and extremists.  I knew then I had to come back. I wanted to study this movement so that other people outside the Hausa speaking world would know of it; I wanted to combat stereotypes about the Hausa speaking north; but mostly I just wanted to come back and be a part of the creative energy.

I had first come to Nigeria as a child in 1988 accompanying my parents.  My father was a dreamer, and one of his dreams was to take his children to live in a place where they would be able to see beyond the privilege, materialism, and self-centredness of American life. When we first went to Port Harcourt on the invitation of a university, my parents told us we would be in Nigeria for four years. Four years turned into twenty-two and counting. After three years in Port Harcourt, our family moved to Jos in 1991, where my father became a professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Jos. My parents have lived in Jos ever since.

Our parents encouraged us to venture into Nigerian life beyond our international school bubble. My brother Dan, as young as he was, co-hosted a Rock and Roll show on 95.5 FM, Jos, with DBMC, the Rocking MC, foreshadowing his work in entertainment as a filmmaker. My sister Laura, once she was in high school, volunteered at Evangel Hospital, anticipating her career as a medical doctor. I was shyer, preferring to spend all my time reading fantasy and science fiction novels, daydreaming, or writing in my journal.

During one school break, my father signed up all of us children to take a two month Hausa course, where we learned the basic Hausa of greetings and market language. But, as a teenager immersed in my own world, I wasn’t interested. I was convinced, from my struggles with Spanish at school,  that I couldn’t learn another language, and I didn’t see the need. We didn’t need Hausa at school. We wouldn’t need it in America, where I was going. It was interesting but not worth pouring my life into.

When I returned to the U.S. for university, I studied English literature and creative writing. I hung out with groups of writers and poets and became co-editor of my college literary magazine. I wanted to be a part of one of those significant historical moments I was studying. I wanted to write something people would read after I died. I planned to stay in the U.S. then. I imagined myself in the forests of New Hampshire or the craggy coasts of Maine, sitting in a bay window watching the snow fall and penning my poetry. But when following my graduation, I moved to New York City with my best friend from Nigeria and worked as an editor at a small children’s book publisher, my longing began to turn back towards Nigeria. Hosting old school friends, whenever they came through New York, I realized how much of Nigeria I had missed as a child, living as I had in the world of fiction and the protected atmosphere of an international school. As much as I loved New York and loved the masses of people from all over the world who co-exist in the city, I craved for Nigeria. I wanted to find out if I could belong there—me this white American girl, who had many homes but not a single one I felt I could commit to.

So in September 2001 just as the towers came down in New York and the fires raged across Jos, I returned on a Fulbright scholarship to Jos. I spent the next two years doing a little research, a little writing, a little teaching, a little editing. I sang in the community choir, took French classes at the Alliance Francaise and studied Hausa with a series of tutors. I discovered on a one month trip to Lomé, Togo, to improve my French, that I wasn’t bad at learning languages; I just needed to live in a place to be able to speak. I became involved with the small but thriving Jos branch of Association of Nigerian Authors and determined to go back to school and do a PhD on contemporary Nigerian writing.

When I began the MA to PhD programme in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I discovered that proficiency in an African language was a  requirement of the program. And

 

The film club in Sokoto I frequented and where I first became interested in Hausa films (c) Carmen McCain

 

that’s how I found myself in Sokoto in 2005 on language study, in Kano in 2006 for pre-dissertation research on Hausa novels and films, and finally back in Kano in 2008 for dissertation research on Hausa popular arts. I have been here ever since.

When I returned to Kano in 2008, the Kannywood I had caught a glimpse of in 2005 and 2006 was gone. In 2007, a private cell phone video of a Hausa actress with a non-film industry lover had been leaked and had become the hottest viral video in Kano. Although it was a private video of an indiscrete act between individuals, the entire Hausa film industry took the heat.  A new head of the Kano State Censorship Board, Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, was appointed; the film industry was suspended for nearly a year; and actor and musician Adam A. Zango was imprisoned for releasing his music video album without passing it through the board. I arrived back in Kano eager to re-enter the world of film, but everything had changed.   Gone were the cheerful song and dance sequences shot guerilla style on the side of the road in Farm Centre. Gone was the jolly confusion of four films at a time on location at Fine Time Park and Restaurant.

 

On the set of Albashi 3 in the Fine Time Park and Restaurant, July 2006. There were about four other films being shot there that day. (c)Carmen McCain

 

Gone were the gala shows in open air theatres near Marhaba cinema. Gone was the anticipation that you might see filmmakers at any time, shooting on the side of the road. The industry seemed more spread out and scattered than I remembered. Films seemed to have become darker and more interior.

Although I had been on quite a few locations in 2006, on my return to Kano in 2008, I spent nearly a year without visiting a single set. Filmmakers were leaving the state now, to Jigawa, to Kaduna, to Katsina, to Zaria. I was being hosted by the Department of Mass Communications at Bayero University and teaching a class. I didn’t have as much freedom to go out of state to film locations, so instead I began to hang out in the studios, where editors cut together movies and singers taped jingles, recorded their albums, and sang the songs that punctuate

 

Golden Goose Studio: Ibrahim Chairman, Aisha Golden Goose, and Osama bin Music (c)Carmen McCain

 

the films.  My main hang out was at Golden Goose Studio on Zoo Road, managed by the Hausa rapper Ziriums, with assistance of his brother Osama bin Music. There I grew to know the Hausa novelist and screenwriter Nazir Adam Salih, editors Sulaiman Abubakar, Yakubu, and Mohammad Abdullahi , musicians DJ Yaks, Alfazazi, Pastor Dan, Suhaima YK and Aisha; the writer, producer and director Baba Ali Yakasai, and young Ya’u, the orphan who had begged on the streets before becoming a studio hand and being sponsored to go back to school by the studio.

 

Filmmaker Baba Ali Yakasai and Writer Nazir Adam Salih at Golden Goose Studio (c)Carmen McCain

 

Large numbers of artists trooped through the studio on a weekly basis, overseeing films as they were edited, or voicing radio programmes and songs in the studio.

It was at Golden Goose that I began to think and dream in Hausa, and it was there that I began to learn much of what I know about the Hausa film industry. It was at Golden Goose that I fasted for Ramadan for the first time and broke fast with young filmmakers and musicians who would contribute chopped pineapple and watermelon, bags of kosai,  bowls of koko, and newspaper wraps full of suya. When the iftar call to prayer came at sunset, and they had prayed, we would descend on the food. It would be gone within minutes. We would sit for hours laughing, planning film

 

Me with singer Suhaima YK

 

scripts, having long conversations on religion and politics and film and culture.  It was here I finally felt I had found the home in Nigeria I had been seeking for so long.

That year, as my research became personal, my first infatuation for Hausa popular culture turned into a fierce love for the young people who work through the night editing and writing and singing, making a living for themselves through

 

Musician Ziriums, Writer Nazir Adam Salih, and Director Falalu Dorayi making music in Golden Goose Studio, (c)Carmen McCain

 

their creativity. And as I read newspapers and email listserves and heard discussions on the radio about films, I was disturbed by the disparities between the public discourse I heard about filmmakers, in which they were often characterized as immoral layabouts just in it for the fast money, spoiling society with shoddy films and music, and what I was seeing and hearing from the filmmakers themselves. They spoke passionately and with nuance about the films they were eager to make, the research they had done on new equipment. I would hear hours of conversation on the aesthetic and narrative features of the Lost and Prison Break series or Indian films, fervant discussions on social inequalities, the hypocrisies of the elite, and a desire to expose and correct ills in society.  They frequently attempted to convert me from Christianity to Islam.

In October 2008, a few months after I began to hang out at Golden Goose, the popular comedian Ibro and his colleague Lawal Kaura were arrested and imprisoned for two months after a quick trial at a mobile court attached to the Kano Censor’s Board with no lawyer present. They were accused of having not registered a company they claimed did not exist.  At the end of December 2009, pioneering Hausa filmmaker Hamisu Lamido Iyan Tama was imprisoned for three months on accusations that he had not censored his award-winning film Tsintsiya with the Kano Censor’s Board even though he had stated on the radio that the film  was not for sale in Kano. But these were only the big names. Hundreds of other film industry workers were also being regularly detained and fined for obscure offenses.

 

Sulaiman Mpeg behind bars at KSCB mobile court

 

In February 2009, my friend Sulaiman, the editor I had gotten to know at Golden Goose, was arrested on accusations that the studio he was now working in was not registered with the censor’s board.  Sulaiman’s employer came to the police station bringing the papers showing the studio was registered, although it had recently moved locations, but the police insisted that Sulaiman would spend the night in jail before being taken before a judge. The conflicts have continued into 2010, most recently in a series of legal altercations between the Kaduna filmmaker’s association and the director general of the Kano Censors board, which have included Kano police travelling to Kaduna to arrest the editor of Fim Magazine, Aliyu Gora.

 

Editor of Fim Magazine Aliyu Gora II and filmmaker Iyan Tama at court in Kaduna. Both were imprisoned in Goron Dutse Prison in Kano on accusations of the Kano State Censor's Board (c)Carmen McCain

 

Because there seemed to be so little widely available news coverage of these events, I began a blog to document alleged abuses as well as to provide a forum where I could post photos, interviews and reports of interactions I had with artists and writers.  I hope this column can extend the work I first began on my blog, and plan to focus mainly on Hausa popular culture and my experience of it, though I may occasionally branch into other Naija related subjects.

Although my first encounter with Nigeria began  twenty-two years ago and although I feel that I have found my family and kindred spirits here, I remain conscious of the fact that I am a foreigner. There will be places in Nigeria where I will always remain an outsider, and people to whom my opinions will always be tinged with the ignorance of the stranger. That said, I hope that my readers will take my contributions in the spirit in which they are given: the love of a foster child for her adopted country. I hope I may contribute in freshness of perspective what I lack in full understanding, and that as I write, I will transfer some of the excitement and love I have for these creative entrepreneurs  to my readers. I welcome your feedback.